How To Respond To The Dreaded Half-Smile?

As many of you who know me, know that I earned my masters (1998) and doctorate (2000) in clinical psychology from the University of Rhode Island. Much of my research has focused on the causes and effects of discrimination, prejudice, identity development, and racism. For my masters thesis, for example, I examined white women and their experiences with crying. In my dissertation, I examined how meaning in life related to experience with racism for black college students on a predominately white campus. Broadly speaking, I am interested in how cultural perceptions relate to emotional expression and interpersonal experience.

Much of the research that examines discrimination and experience with racism comes from self report surveys from people of color. People of color tell researchers the type and duration of racist experiences. People of color also tell us how they feel about dealing with racism. Fewer research studies examine the incongruent and minute social and interpersonal experiences that happen between whites and blacks. There still remains much for us to learn about what behaviors white’s might engage in, that if they were more conscious of and aware of the impact on people of color, they may not choose to engage in these socially awkward behaviors.

In this posting, I want to share my supposition and anecdotal experience with the “dreaded half-smile.”

The half smile is exactly that, a smile that is not a full smile but something just below it.

When I encounter the “half smile’ it usually signifies a couple of things.

The first is that the person may feel ambivalent about what to say to me because I am African American. Instead of just offering a warm hello, the person is ambivalent and unsure of what to say in that exact moment and then throws a half smile.

The second interpretation is that the half smile may mask negative or unwanted feelings; discomfort, awkwardness, or slight disdain for feeling like the he or she has to do something but is not sure what to say or do.

The third is that the white person is startled by my presence; I am a tall and large African American man. So the half smile can be camouflaging both surprise at my skin color and size or both. But the researcher in me doesn’t really think it is my size because I encountered these same half smiles when I was smaller.

The half smile seems to be hiding a negative or startled response.

So you may be wondering how does Dr. Ragsdale (or Brian on most days) respond to the dreaded half smile. Well, usually I throw a half smile back, sometimes, I ignore it altogether, or shake my head in disbelief, and other times I just say “hello.

How do you deal with half smiles? Have you experienced a half smile?

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